The Political Economy of Forced Migration: How Weaponized Poverty Leads to Displacement
Irons, Dylan Alexander
Individuals have sought refuge from extrajudicial punishment as early as ancient Greece when Cylon sought supplication at the Altar of Athena. Today, more than 1% of the global population is displaced. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the second World War; violence plaguing the Northern Triangle produces displacement in numbers so large as to overwhelm processing centers along the US-Mexico border; and ongoing conflict in Syria and Yemen has resulted in more than one-quarter of their populations being displaced. While political violence is responsible for the lion’s share of forced migration, less is known of the role poverty plays. Current scholarship provides mixed results at best. Critically, however, no scholars consider how poverty can be an element of persecution – a necessary component for establishing eligibility for asylum. I argue that states engage in economic persecution to subdue their political opponents. They accomplish this by limiting access to food, employment, health care, education, and other socioeconomic rights. These practices are intended to impose a state of destitution on political others, downgrading quality of life to the point that those on the receiving end become desperate enough to flee. Using a mixed-methods approach, I show that people flee not only poverty, but poverty as a result of economic coercion. Across two quantitative studies, I show that broader indicators of poverty largely correspond with rates of forced migration. To demonstrate targeted political violence, I also interview 20 refugees from North Korea – a state where socioeconomic wellbeing and mobility are purely a function of perceived loyalty to the state. Information gleaned from these interviews corroborate my theory and quantitative findings. Beyond firmly establishing that poverty and economic persecution lead to forced migration, this dissertation also has implications for future research of forced migration. By focusing on targeted economic violence, this dissertation speaks not only to how many become displaced, but also who becomes displaced. Thus, this research advances the field of forced migration beyond International Relations and into interests concerning identity and Comparative Politics.